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OP-ED | ‘Gray Thursday’ Is Just the Start of Low-Wage Workers’ Woes

by Susan Bigelow | Nov 22, 2013 8:52am
(7) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Business, Economics, Equality, Labor, Opinion, Enfield

It’s almost Thanksgiving, which means a day of home, family, togetherness and, if you’re unlucky enough to have a job at one of an increasing number of retailers, going in to work that evening.

The creep of Black Friday’s consumer orgy into Thanksgiving itself, called “Gray Thursday,” is still relatively new, but it’s growing fast. Kmart, which apparently started the trend about 20 years ago, is now opening at 6 a.m. on Thursday and staying open for the entire holiday. More department stores and other retailers are jumping on the bandwagon all the time.

The bad news for people working low-wage jobs like fast food and retail doesn’t stop there. There’s been plenty of news lately about the bad relationship between massive, wealthy companies and workers. Walmart in particular is notorious for treating its workers poorly; one Walmart actually had the gall to hold a Thanksgiving food drive for “associates in need.” Why not pay them a livable wage or provide better benefits? Maybe they’d be less needy that way.

Fast food is just as bad. McDonalds recently took heat for making a website that gave its employees shockingly awful advice for making ends meet, like selling unopened Christmas gifts on eBay, “breaking food into pieces” to make it last longer, and, believe it or not, “quit complaining” to reduce stress.

Workers are fighting back. This summer, fast food workers in 60 cities went on strike to demand higher wages, and retail worker groups like OUR Walmart are planning strikes and walkouts on Black Friday.

It would be great if this country had a healthy labor movement to advocate for them.

This isn’t to say that these groups don’t have labor support; they absolutely do. The United Food & Commercial Workers have close ties to OUR Walmart, and the fast food strike’s organizers received training from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). But I’m left to wonder why more unions didn’t join in mass action to support retail and fast food workers, or enjoin their members to actually stay out of Walmart and McDonalds. “Count on the full support of the millions of working people who belong to our unions,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at a press conference announcing plans to mobilize workers on Black Friday.

I wish I could believe that, for most people, that support will be anything but token. The labor movement is neither strong nor united enough to really force change. It’s not entirely their fault; unions have faced a decline in membership and clout for decades, not to mention a constant barrage of vicious, negative attacks from conservatives who blame unions for just about everything that’s gone wrong with this country. Anti-union “right-to-work” legislation has made gains in many states.

Unions sometimes haven’t helped their cause; the inexplicable behavior of unions during Connecticut’s 2011 budget fight comes to mind. Some unions seem more interested in preserving and expanding what they have instead of fighting for justice for all workers. They are, in some ways, victims of their own success. It’s unfortunate (and probably not a coincidence) that when fast food and retail workers need support, the labor movement is at a low ebb.

So, absent a strong labor movement, what can we do to support American workers who work hard, have jobs, take responsibility for their lives, and yet still can’t manage to make ends meet thanks to low wages?

One thing we can do is continue to raise the minimum wage. Massachusetts’s state senate recently passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage there to $11/hour. This far outpaces Connecticut’s minimum wage hike, which will increase to $9/hour in 2015. This is still much better than the federal minimum wage, which currently is $7.25/hour. Only about 25,000 workers in Connecticut make the minimum wage, but pushing that wage higher often has the effect of raising wages elsewhere.

Another step people can take is to not patronize places that treat their workers poorly. If you’re going out on Black Friday, maybe think about going to Costco instead of Walmart, if you can manage it. Not everyone can do this, of course; budgets are tight everywhere.

Maybe the most important thing people can do, though, is to keep spreading the word. Companies who treat workers badly rely on consumer ignorance; when customers start becoming informed and outraged then things may, at last, change.

As for Gray Thursday, Massachusetts has a law forbidding stores to open on Thanksgiving. It’s a great law. Connecticut ought to think about passing one just like it.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(7) Comments

posted by: ConnVoter | November 22, 2013  1:19pm

Susan, what would you do about employees who want to work on Thanksgiving (ie, employees who don’t celebrate the holiday or would rather earn extra cash than celebrate it)?

Also, raising the minimum wage makes some jobs illegal.  For example, if there is a job that takes an hour and is worth $9 to someone, that person will do it if the minimum wage is $8.50.  If you raise the minimum wage to $9.50, the person either won’t do the job, or will hire someone to do the work illegally (ie, under the table).

Finally, when wages rise, where do you think the money comes from?

posted by: art vandelay | November 23, 2013  9:18pm

art vandelay

To Socialist Susan,
Let’s say in your world every McDonald’s & Wal-Mart worker had a “Livable Wage”. Your typical “Big Mac” would be equal in price to a prime rib at Ruth’s Chris. The handbag you just purchased at Wal-Mart would cost just as much as a Coach bag on 5th Ave.  I think you get the point.  Wal-Mart & McDonalds are not going to equally distribute their wealth to the average entry level worker.  If you want to live in a country where everyone is equal, try Cuba, or Venezuela.  Don’t try to change this one even though Obama and your fellow Socialist Democrats are doing a pretty good job of it lately.

posted by: DrHunterSThompson | November 25, 2013  8:35am

DrHunterSThompson

Seems to me the holidays are good for the workers you describe.  If you know anyone in one of those jobs, then you know their hours have been cut back significantly the past 2 or 3 years.  This time of year is great for them - lots of hours and an opportunity to make holiday cash.

Research, then write.

also, let’s stop trying to force pay somebody a wage they may not be worth.

HST

posted by: justsayin | November 25, 2013  8:36am

Retailers more than anyone react to consumer demand. The times they are open and the wages they pay are in line with what there consumers will spend and want. If you do not like it do not shop there or do not work there, simple.

posted by: Greg | November 25, 2013  8:57am

“Another step people can take is to not patronize places that treat their workers poorly…not everyone can do this.”

Yes, they can. There’s nothing—NOTHING—that says low budget shoppers need to patronize WalMart or any other store to buy crap they don’t need. If budgets are tight, don’t buy Christmas gifts and spend time doing things with the family instead. Again, there is nothing—NOTHING—that requires any human in this country to participate in this consumerist garbage that has come to define this time of year. Same for McDonalds; Go buy a giant bag of rice for $10 and feed that to your family instead of spending $10 on non-food trash.  Frugality can find its way into the world and it certainly doesn’t need to consist of WalMart or McDonalds.

You/everyone votes with each dollar spent or not spent at a certain place or on a specific product. Don’t like McDonalds or WalMart’s labor practices, take your spending dollars elsewhere. Get your friends on board and tell them not to shop at WalMart.  More importantly, put an end to buying useless crap you don’t need and work towards putting an end to this culture that promotes trampling eachother to save a few bucks on flat screen TV’s on black friday.

posted by: William Jenkins | November 28, 2013  1:07pm

Let’s pass more laws that say no one has to work on holidays.  That’s right Susan, no taxi drivers, bus drivers, airline pilots, train engineers, subway engineers, law enforcement or fire officials officials have to work on any holidays anymore.  Also, all convenience stores and gas stations are hereby ordered to shut down on all holidays.  Oh, and don’t forget to close all the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks too, people who work at those places shouldn’t have to be required to work on holidays either.

Susan, you just don’t get it.

posted by: Joebigjoe | November 28, 2013  5:09pm

In this group of workers there are young people in their first jobs trying to get ahead, there are also displaced workers who had good careers but are doing what they need to to pay the bills.

However let’s play this was your life with the other ones that are crying for a livable wage. They should have thought about that when they were fourth graders that didn’t listen to the teacher or even try to read outside school or when they were in high school making fun of nerds that got extra help when they went and smoked a little dope. I can think of a ton of     people I went to high school with where a   number of them continually made bad choices
and never really rose out of poverty. It is past time people learned their are real consequences for their actions and pass that message on to young people.